Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The World's Greatest Elephant by Ralph Helfer, illus by Ted Lewin


I spotted this on the shelf the last time I was in the library, and I liked the cover, so I grabbed it. Turns out, this is a true story about an elephant named Modoc and her trainer Bram. How did I not know this story? It is so fascinating. There is a lot of drama. Seriously, just one or two events would make an interesting story, but Bram and Modoc went through so many things together it seems overly dramatic. Yet it is true. 

(Disclaimer-- I didn't do my due diligence and check if there were some artistic liberties taken.) 


Bram and Modoc were born within a few hours of each other, to a German elephant trainer.


They were best friends, doing everything together. Even sharing bottles apparently.


Before long, they were practicing tricks and performing together.


When Bram and Modoc were young teenagers (ish), Bram's father fell ill and the circus was sold to a new owner. Bram was told he was too young to accompany Modoc to New York. But to ease his father's death bed, Bram told his father that Mr. North, the new owner said he would think about it. The next day, Bram's father died. 

The whole circus came out for the funeral march.


With his father dead, Bram decided he wasn't letting Modoc be torn from him without a fight. A sailor friend helped smuggle him aboard the ship and took him down to where the elephants were kept. The two friends spent some happy days together sailing to America. 

One day, the ship started pitching and rolling. A particularly violent wave hit the ship, slamming a stored cannon lose which smashed a hole in the side of the boat. (Is this sort of thing where the term a loose cannon comes from? Hmmm....) Bram freed the elephants, but dropped the keys just before he could free Modoc. In terror, Modoc pulled her chain lose. 

Bram and Modoc were swept out into the waves and separated.


Bram wasn't sure it was worth trying to stay alive without Modoc. Then he heard her calling him. 


Since elephants are great swimmers, the survivors tied themselves across Modoc's back with ropes made from their clothes and floated until a boat saw them. 


The boat could only hold the men, not Modoc. Bram refused to leave Modoc. They floated for a few more days, exhaustion getting closer and closer to pulling them down entirely.


Just as they were going down, they were rescued. They were brought to a Maharajah's palace. Slightly confusing--how did they get to a Maharajah's territory on the way from Germany to New York? There is apparently a grown up version of this story, which might explain some of these things. 


Mr. North, Modoc's new owner heard they were at the Maharajah's and the Maharajah was forced to place Modoc and Bram under house arrest. To temper the blow, he gave Bram a ring with his sign and told Bram that his guards were generally pretty sleepy in the evening. 

That evening, with the Maharajah's ring on his finger, Bram and Modoc set off into the forest. After wandering for a month, they came to the teak forests. The overseer said he didn't need another elephant. Bram begged the overseer to let him show what Modoc could do. The overseer was so impressed with Modoc's size, he let Bram strut Modoc's stuff. 

Modoc did her thing and Bram and Modoc started hauling teak the next day.

 
Life in the teak camp was good. Hard work, but friendly companions. This niceness was cut short by a group of Pakistani soldiers who commandeered all the elephants for the country of Pakistan. Life was not good in the Pakistan army. While marching, Modoc took two bullets to her skull from an Indian Army fighter plane. 

Bram and Modoc rested up in the army hospital and tried to decide what to do next. That decision was taken out of their hands. Mr. North showed up and had Bram thrown in jail for stealing Modoc. 


Mr. North soon realized he had planned without consulting Modoc. She refused to go anywhere near the ship without Bram. Mr. North had to come fetch Bram out of the jail to convince Modoc to get on the ship. 

North, very ungraciously, allowed Bram to accompany them.


America! At long last!


Bram and Modoc were a sensation!


Years later, a terrible fire broke out in the circus tent. Bram and Modoc made several trips back into the flames to rescue people. The tent exploded in flames burning Modoc's skin terribly. 


Next day, Mr. North told Bram he had no use for a scarred and ugly elephant, and by default, he didn't need Bram either. Bram cashed in all his savings and brought it back to Mr. North to buy Modoc from him. 

Mr. North refused. Modoc had already been sold.

(Mr. North is freakishly mean.)


Bram spent the next ten years searching for Modoc, putting up posters wherever he could find work and asking everyone if they had seen a great, scarred elephant. During these years, Modoc was living in the Ozark's, chained up so continuously the chain eventually embedded in her leg. A rancher who kept exotic animals and rented them out to the motion picture industry saw her advertised--"Elephant for sale, cheap." He drove out to the Ozarks and brought her back to California. 


The rancher wasn't expecting Modoc to do anything, just live in peace and quiet after her terrible years chained up. But after leaving a radio on near her stall one day, a circus march came on. After all these years, Modoc still responded and started going through her routine. The rancher realized Modoc was something special! 

A year later, an old man came to the ranch--he used to train elephants and thought there might be a job for him at the ranch. He was telling the rancher about the elephant he used to work with, Modoc, when a bellowing trumpet interrupted him.


Modoc trampled down a fence and grabbed him with her trunk and swung him up, rumbling with joy all the while!

Modoc had found her Bram and Bram had found his Modoc.

Isn't that a fantastic story? I want to read the grown up version now. 

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